Family Business

Dealing with death in a family business poses unique challenges

September 15, 2012 

On September 11th, I was invited to the Durham-Orange Estate Planning Council meeting, and the day’s presentation was given by Hospice of Wake County. A group skilled in planning for death, learning about caring for those experiencing imminent death, coincidently on the day of the gravest American tragedy of our generation. It was certainly hard to not walk away thinking about death, how suddenly it can strike and the breadth of its impact.

In my years of consulting to family businesses I have only experienced death in a family business two times. While neither was a surprise, one did alter the course of the family business. It was a second-generation family business with two brothers working together, with the third generation employed and striving to make its mark, when the mother and co-founder died. She had put up a good fight against cancer, but at some point it was time to concede, and it was just a few weeks after that she passed away.

It was not unexpected. All the affairs were in order, travel plans had been postponed, goodbyes had been said, and all had steeled themselves against the oncoming wave of past memories, good and bad, and the emotional sadness that inevitably follows. While everyone grieves in his or her own way, there was an acknowledgement that the show must go on when it comes to the family business. At least for a while.

Perspectives change

As time wore on, the perspective of those family members remaining subtly began to change. While the two brothers had already assumed full control of the company, there was awareness that now they were truly on their own. They had been trained, the business has been transitioned, and yes, they were now in charge. But the door to the house had always been open to stop by for a hot cup of coffee and a good conversation about whatever was on their mind. No more.

It was a sense that their release valve/security blanket was now gone, and they now had to assume the top spot in the pecking order previously held by Mom. Two things began to happen: A more serious focus ensued as to “What do I want to do with the rest of my life, and how does that fit with my role in the business?” and a realization dawned that the volume had been turned up on preparing for and figuring out the succession plan for the next generation.

At the same time, the next generation had become cognizant that the time had arrived for them to step up their leadership role in the business if they were to assume control of the business one day. And if not, perhaps they needed to seek their life’s ambition outside the family business.

A delicate situation

As an adviser to the family business, my role was quite delicate in this situation. None of the logic, knowledge or business savvy in the world could have any influence on the emotional situation that this was. Certainly time must be allocated for the grieving process, and issues that were previously on the front burner must be slowly eased back into. But similar to the life perspective change that happens to you when you bring a new life into the world, a perspective change comes about when the one who brought you into the world leaves. The issues that were hot before really didn’t seem so important anymore.

As Americans who endured the cataclysmic and senseless tragedy of 9/11 that permanently burned a hole in our hearts and in our souls, we yearn for those days of innocence past. As the children of our parents, we are despondently grateful for those who choose to serve in palliative care and hospice services. And as intelligent, forward-looking people, we courageously take measures to prepare for the inevitable.

For those in a second-generation family business and beyond, don’t forget that you are standing on the shoulders of those before you, and those after you are standing on yours. Stand tall.

Henry Hutcheson is a nationally recognized family business speaker, author and consultant in Raleigh. He can be reached at

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